WPGM Commentary: Reading, Riffing And The Rest – On Efficiently Understanding More

Although I am not an expert in behavioural economics, a field also known as judgement and decision making (JDM), I think about it often. Frequently I have struggled, and even after this is published, I will continue to do so, with questions about how to use time and energy most effectively. That is just some of my own psychological context for the discussion presented here.

However, the issues I have considered affect far more people and subjects. Most of the following points regarding texts, such as books, or music can be applied to the arts wholly or generally. Hopefully some truths can also be applied to other areas of life, including those that I speak of more clearly towards this article’s end.

Listening today to the title track from Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby, most probably for the first time ever, at one point I did not understand what Reed was saying. Although I consider myself intelligent to a point and at least quite competent, this lack of comprehension often happens, usually on several or many occasions per day and most noticeably when I read a book.

I thought that it would not be worthwhile to go back (those familiar with tapes might say ‘rewind’) and try to work out what exactly was being said by Reed in the song.

This opinion of mine was, it seems, based mainly on the fact that the ‘flow’ of the music would be disrupted, and that this would diminish how much I got out of the performance, not just in terms of pleasure but more importantly in terms of how much I understood. Attempting to understand something in detail and more broadly is the main focal point of this article.

In addition to disrupting the song’s flow, ‘rewinding’ the music would perhaps emphasise or give preference to one part of the work over another. This might unjustly tip the scales of judgement regarding my thoughts on the song.

This problem could affect my understanding of the song in terms of my critical appraisal of it: how good it is, and its place within a bigger musical framework. The process of evaluating music, the arts as a whole, or perhaps anything, can never be completely equal, just or objective, but the thoughts in this paragraph are still worth mentioning.

It should also be said that when studying music, or any work of art, trying to understand what the artist is trying to communicate is important. Additionally, it remains preferable even in some cases when the person listening does so mainly casually. However, comprehension and the need for accuracy is especially significant when listening while preparing for a review.

However, we cannot understand everything about all music due to one main cause affecting many things: in summary, a lack of resources. We do not have access to absolute truth about everything – if such absolutes exist – including an infallible source of knowledge about the music, its meanings and its quality or lack thereof.

Furthermore, as well as not understanding or remembering everything, we often change our minds. Moreover, our time, our focus and energy levels are limited, even for those of us who have abundant supplies of such things. These issues can be exaggerated as well when artists will not or cannot make their work as accessible as they might have otherwise.

We have limited resources but we want to do well in the present and the future. As a result of this, economics – the science (or perhaps art, as some argue) of making the best use of resources – comes into play.

This could include economics as far as how much music we can or should buy or sell is concerned, because the main subject economics is material wealth and things closely linked to it. However, the main subject of this article is behavioural economics: acting in the most useful way possible.

Therefore, the main idea now is understanding something as well as possible, while acknowledging that even if we did understand everything in or about an album, it is likely that we cannot remember or appreciate it in totality, down to the finest detail.

This may remain the case after many, many repeated periods of listening to and studying it. Consequently, we should recognize our limitations and strengths, and those of other people, prioritising some resources and ways of acquiring them over other ones.

Does this mean that we should prioritize time-saving, so that we can also save energy or consider a greater number of subjects, and arguably make our understanding wider rather than deeper but narrower? Or should being faster or listening to a variety of songs in less depth or single songs in their entirety take a back seat to a more specialized knowledge (understanding more about fewer works of music, or certain parts of songs)?

Such puzzling questions about the breadth and depth of listening are complicated by the fact that the understanding of a work such as a song is increased by an understanding of influencing contexts surrounding it. This includes other works one could look into, not to mention many other facts.

Influential music can include pieces that come from the same period as, or before, the product of creativity, or those that were inspired by it. However, the context of any given piece is enriched by an understanding of the work itself.

This dialectic between understanding something in full and understanding part of that thing – something which could cause problems when one wants or needs to prioritize – is also found in the problem of trying to understand the details, as well as the larger parts, of each individual work, such as a guitar part in a band’s song.

One could also think about whether to focus on a word within a line which is, in turn, within a verse of a larger song from an album that forms just some of a band’s output, and so on…

Returning to the discussion of whether or not it would be useful to ‘rewind’ the song “Coney Island Baby”, by Reed (whose biography, one by Mick Wall, I finished last year) it is notable that, after playing the song several times, I have not yet understood – at least as far as I can remember – what the lyricist says in that section near the song’s beginning.

I may never have listened to that part properly since, perhaps being distracted by something else instead. Therefore, repeated plays did not result in greater understanding. It would not be unreasonable to say this is often the result more often than just in this case, even when one listens carefully, thinks hard and tries to turn the results of such activity into philosophical gold.

Anyone who doubts this should consult the lyrics of many Bob Dylan songs and be honest about how much they are able to validly deduce. I say this with respect to both theory-heavy, deep-thinking critics and the writers of certain songs that are barely, if at all, accessible.

There is, though, surely a case for stating that in general there is a greater likelihood of understanding a work having listened to it and/or thought about its content many times than if you listened to it on one occasion while disinterested.

However, given the amount of works available to listen to and works of commentary about some of them, as well as limits on our time, this complete absorption of, or perhaps devotion to, a subject cannot be undertaken in the pursuit of every single work out in the marketplace of art and other ideas.

In short, the main question regarding understanding is what are you most interested in understanding and how can you enable yourself to understand it best?

To answer this enquiry is not easy but will involve some sacrifices and some gains, such as failing to understand one small passage in a book, at least with certainty, because you kept reading and finished more books in the process than you would have otherwise.

On the other hand, sometimes quality is more important than quality and really seeking to understand smaller details can give the audience a better understand the larger work of which the minutiae are part than if more works were listened to with less understanding.

Thus, one choice of action and its opposite can have relative advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, the issue is not solved by boldly absolute positions (like Always do X) with no subtleties or shades. However, foolishly using broad brush strokes to paint the solutions needed in order to understand every situation is not the same as having general principles which we are willing to accept may be unhelpful or in need of modifying in future.

I used to be preoccupied often with never wasting time. (I still am in a way: hence, I suppose, this article.) But if one never rests or lets certain things slide one ends up wasting more time, at least in some cases, than if one was constantly obsessed with doing all one could to not let a single minute fall by the side of the efficiency superhighway.

Importantly, our general strategies are the result of subjective preferences rather than an objective good or a guarantee that if you do X, this will be the consequence. Life is too disordered and uncertain for such rigid thinking.

However, equally or even more damaging is the idea that one should not plan or employ a strategy or set of tactics, even if they are not all-encompassing or cannot be encapsulated in the narrow confines of an equation or syllogism.

One part of making for oneself a useful, workable strategy is to accept that it may not work out and that the relationship between results and our input is not necessarily simple. This should not stop us, though, from working on a solution in place to problems and getting a strategy in place.

Another useful component of a working strategy is recognizing the importance of logical consistency. For example, I have considered that rewinding the song would disrupt the flow, the importance of such a disturbance, and recognized that this probably should be applied to an approach to reading or rereading novels. However, I am not yet sure what truths regarding strategy to deduce from such a reality.

Also significant is the fact there are limits to that what we can and do know, remember and understand. The matters discussed in this article are not easily answered even by an article this long. That said, I hope I have shed some significant light on several issues and perhaps paved the way for, or maybe even provided, some answers.

I think, in conclusion, that one should recognize one’s limits and strengths as well as when to reverse, when to stop and when to accelerate, realizing that there is probably not a one-size-fits-everything formula or a complete absence of connections, probabilities, correlations and preferences present.

Know when to work hard and when to sit back. Try to avoid giving too much importance to that which does not warrant it, while also not underestimating the role of small details and that which is overarching. That said, accept that some (or much) loss or failure is inevitable, as are some successes.

I owe least some of this positive but realistically balanced outlook to writings by existentialist Albert Camus, Julian Baggini (who wrote the interesting and thorough The Edge of Reason), and Derren Brown.

The latter writer’s text entitled Happy has had an especially extraordinary effect on my understanding. For one thing, it helped me realise that our construction of reality is based around a narrative that is significantly subjective, a fact that one needs to acknowledge when seeking understanding.

Words by David J Lownds

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